Intelligence reports from Afghanistan missed one key element: speed

People climb a barbed wire wall to enter the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 16, 2021, in this still image taken from a video. (REUTERS)
People climb a barbed wire wall to enter the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 16, 2021, in this still image taken from a video. (REUTERS)


  • U.S. officials are conflicted over whether intelligence failures may have contributed to the swift Taliban takeover of Afghanistan

In late June, a stark new intelligence estimate said the government of President Ashraf Ghani could collapse in as soon as six months after the U.S. withdrew its troops from Afghanistan.

By last week, with the Taliban rapidly taking over provincial capitals, a revised estimate gave the Ghani government as little as a month to survive. On Sunday, Mr. Ghani fled the country as Taliban troops entered Kabul.

In recent days, Biden administration officials publicly and privately expressed their surprise at how quickly the Taliban were moving through the country, overtaking one provincial capital after another while Afghan forces barely put up a fight.

A U.S. official dismissed the notion that only intelligence failures were to blame for the swift collapse of the Afghanistan government, saying a number of factors contributed to the miscalculation, including the speed of the Biden administration’s withdrawal and the fact that the military contractors left as well.

​According to an administration official, military planners believed that “speed equals safety." “Once we made the decision to go, it was important that we go efficiently, to protect our forces," the official added. “Our departure timeline was clearly communicated to all parties, including Afghan forces and our partners."

Biden administration officials say they have long known that a total capitulation of the Afghan government to the Taliban was a possibility, and they planned their withdrawal efforts accordingly.

The swift, sooner-than-anticipated departure of U.S. forces wasn’t totally factored into the intelligence community’s original assessment, said the first official, adding that it wasn’t so much a failure in intelligence on which the administration based its decisions but, rather, a change in circumstances brought about by the swift U.S. withdrawal.

“We have noted the troubling trend lines in Afghanistan for some time, with the Taliban at its strongest, militarily, since 2001. Strategically, a rapid Taliban takeover was always a possibility," a senior intelligence official said. “The question all along was whether the Afghan government and military would be cohesive enough and have the willpower needed to exercise its military capabilities to resist the Taliban. As the Taliban advanced, they ultimately met with little resistance. We have always been clear-eyed that this was possible, and tactical conditions on the ground can often evolve quickly."

Michael Morell, the former acting and deputy director of the CIA wrote on Twitter: “What is happening in Afghanistan is not the result of an intelligence failure. It is the result of numerous policy failures by multiple administrations. Of all the players over the years, the Intelligence Community by far has seen the situation in Afghanistan most accurately."

Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank who has followed Taliban advances for years, said much of the responsibility rests with President Biden. “Ultimately, I think his decision to withdraw was his and his alone," Mr. Roggio said.

But, he said, “The information that he was given that helped drive his decision was massively flawed."

In particular, he said, U.S. intelligence and military officials failed to focus sufficiently on a Taliban strategy, begun in 2014, of building up strength in rural areas as a prelude to the current offensive.

“Any intelligence assessment on the viability of the Afghan republic needed to project the impact of the U.S. military drawdown on the political cohesion of Afghan political and military leadership," said Asfandyar Mir, an Afghanistan expert at the United States Institute of Peace. “Without it, no assessment was complete. So I am very surprised that the administration didn’t factor in the effects of its own policy on the survival of the republic."

Asked on the Sunday news shows whether the Taliban’s swift onslaught amounted to a failure in intelligence, Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized the strength of Taliban forces.

“We’ve known all along that the Taliban was at its strongest position in terms of its strength since 2001," he told NBC’s “Meet the Press." “When we came to office, that was the fact. And we said all along, including back then, that there was a real chance the Taliban would make significant gains throughout Afghanistan."

Mr. Blinken also told ABC News that despite billions of dollars invested by the U.S. to build up Afghan security forces over 20 years, their inability to withstand Taliban forces “did happen more rapidly than we anticipated."

One U.S. official, who previously served in Afghanistan, noted that “the hardest part is that Afghans know the U.S. is not coming in. When Kunduz fell in 2015, the U.S. quickly swooped in to help Afghan forces," the official said. “Not this time."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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